To Kill The Beast

****

Reviewed by: Nikola Jovic

To Kill The Beast
"Tamara Rocca’s beautifully subtle performance of Emilia easily carries the entire film."

In her first feature outing, which premiered this September at TIFF and also showed at the Mannaheim Film Festival, Argentinian director Agustina San Martín, delivers a strong and aberrant story about sexual rediscovery in the face of superstitious customs, that can be best described as: a lot of travelling, for very little dinner. Although its gloominess never abates, making it quite an enjoyable and thought-provoking mood piece, it could have used some stronger plotting to hold the weight of interesting subtext.

The film starts with a phone call, made by a 17-year-old Emilia (Tamara Rocca), to her brother Mateo. They haven’t been close for quite some time but she urgently needs to talk to him, and he never picks up. As the camera is slowly roaming around Mateo’s messy and empty house, we hear Emilia’s voice on the answering machine saying that soon she’ll be coming to his place and that she plans to stay over at her Aunt Ines’ (Ana Brun) hostel nearby. When she arrives to the small village on the border between Brazil and Argentina, she finds the locals are obsessed by rumours of a mythical beast that originates from the souls of bad men who turn into monsters once they die. But as the film progresses, we find that it’s not the rumours of the monster that scare Emilia, but the memories of her love life she’s mulling over. Did the beast kill her brother? Did he turn into the beast? These questions and many more will remain unanswered.

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To Kill The Beast's stunningly rendered forest landscapes at night, captured by cinematographer Constanza Sandoval, conjure up visual wonders and a grimly austere atmosphere that seeps through the film. Intriguingly ominous and laconic scenes really carry the metaphoric approach in delivering its message, that’s permeated with traces of a Lynchian and (Nick Winding) Refn aesthetic. The reason why I’m phrasing it like that, as opposed to saying: “telling its story”, is that, for all its worth, all of that slow burn atmosphere could use some more meat. It’s obvious from the start that the film is using this mythical horror mould just as a metaphor, but the thing with effective metaphors is that exactly by a way of mediating the subject, having a stand-in for the theme in question, you find out more about it than if you were to approach it directly. The metaphor should be the icing on the cake, not a replacement for the thing itself.

Even in the cases of Lynch and Refn, you could say that they were both guilty of over-relying on metaphors to carry their stories (or to make up for the lack thereof), but they’ll never leave you starving. To Kill The Beast, on the other hand, is too restrained to be a horror movie, almost as if it’s not comfortable within the confines of the genre by not wanting to commit to the promise of the mythical beast, and as a drama about family and sexual exploration, it always leaves you wanting more, and in that sense doesn’t fulfil its initial promise in either direction. The fact that the film will leave you marinating for a while and that it simply refuses to indulge you in answering the questions you expect it to answer is very much admirable. San Martín never overstays her welcome, with its brief running time, she tries to be tasteful in how much she reveals, never holding you by the hand and leading you through that emotional fog, but letting you piece things together by yourself. Which is a big gamble when you’re this restrained.

To the film’s advantage, Tamara Rocca’s beautifully subtle performance of Emilia easily carries the entire film. And San Martín knows it, lingering on her face as her feelings about love, sexual attraction, and identity are slowly stirring in her mind, quilting all the past and present experiences with her expectations of things to come, into one misty feeling of dread. One thing To Kill The Beast’s main metaphor has going for it, is that it manages perfectly illustrate how often, people who claim to care about you, and are protecting you, are often doing so not from a place of love, but a selfish dominance. Only women from the village were able to see the actual beast, but it’s men from the village that are making a public outcry about the matter. They need the beast in order for them to perform their masculinity in contrast to it, a danger from which women and children need saving. The film leaves us questioning not just those love relations, but even family relations, love relations… as Emilia’s Aunt Ines says: “Blood ties are worthless if there is no empathy.” And exactly, despite its shortcomings, what this film has in spades is lots of empathy, making it a very solid first feature by a promising young director.

Reviewed on: 25 Nov 2021
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A teenager arrives in a village on the border between Brazil and Argentina, looking to find her brother. Her stay at aunt's hostel where people are shaken by the appearance of a mythical beast, will incite an emotional journey of sexual rediscovery.

Director: Agustina San Martín

Writer: Agustina San Martín

Starring: Ana Brun, Sabrina Grinschpun, João Miguel, Tamara Rocca

Year: 2021

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: Argentina, Brazil, Chile

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